Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

"My Idea of a Chapel" in Jane Austen's World

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

"My Idea of a Chapel" in Jane Austen's World

Article excerpt

WHEN in Mansfield Park the Bertrams, the Crawfords, and Fanny Price visit Mr. Rushworth's house, Sotherton, their first task is to eat: "After the business of arriving was over, it was first necessary to eat, and the doors were thrown open to admit them through one or two intermediate rooms into the appointed dining-parlour, where a collation was prepared with abundance and elegance. Much was said, and much was ate, and all went well" (84). During the tour of the house, alter the meal, the housekeeper addresses herself "chiefly to Miss Crawford and Fanny" (85). However,

   there was no comparison in the willingness of their attention, for
   Miss Crawford, who had seen scores of great houses, and cared for
   none of them, had only the appearance of civilly listening, while
   Fanny, to whom every thing was almost as interesting as it was
   new, attended with unaffected earnestness to all that Mrs. Rushworth
   could relate of the family in former times, its rise and
   grandeur, regal visits and loyal efforts, delighted to connect any
   thing with history already known, or warm her imagination with
   scenes of the past. (85)

Fanny is interested in the house and its history; Miss Crawford is not. We may suspect of Mary Crawford what Darcy suspects of Elizabeth Bennet during the ball at Netherfield, "The present always occupies you in such scenes-does it?'" (93). Fanny cares for the past; Miss Crawford for the present. It seems a clear dichotomy. It fits nicely with the usual idea that Mary Crawford is the lively one, participating in the life of the moment, much as Elizabeth Bennet does, while Fanny here resembles perhaps Mary Bennet, in a concern for the facts and details of the past.

But Fanny is not a dull elf, and has a good deal of imagination herself. What is important in the passage I've just quoted is that Fanny is not simply absorbing facts, or listening politely, but she is listening creatively. As she hears Mrs. Rushworth's descriptions of the family's history; she is "delighted to connect any thing with history already known," and delighted to "warm her imagination with scenes of the past." She has an historical imagination that responds to the past in a way that recreates it, and she is capable of that crucial task of the intellect that Aristotle describes, which is the capacity to see the correspondences between things. Taking what she already knows of the past, she connects it with the family history of the house of Rushworth.

Once the party of tourists has seen most of the house, there is nothing left but to visit the chapel: "Having visited many more rooms than could be supposed to be of any other use than to contribute to the window tax, and find employment for housemaids," they enter the chapel (85). Fanny's imagination, creative and vivid as it is, has "prepared her for something grander than a mere, spacious, oblong room, fitted up for the purpose of devotion--with nothing more striking than the profusion of mahogany, and the crimson velvet cushions appearing over the ledge of the family gallery above" (85). Under the influence of her recent thoughts about history, the family's "rise and grandeur, regal visits and loyal efforts," combined with scenes imagined in her reading of Sir Walter Scott, particularly The Lay of the Last Minstrel, Fanny expects something regal and grand:

"I am disappointed," said she, in a low voice, to Edmund. "This is not my idea of a chapel. There is nothing awful here, nothing melancholy, nothing grand. Here are no aisles, no arches, no inscriptions, no banners. No banners, cousin, to be 'blown by the night wind of Heaven.' No signs that a 'Scottish monarch sleeps below.'" (85-86)

Now, there is of course no reason why there would be a Scottish monarch buried beneath the family chapel at Sotherton, but Fanny, who unlike Mary Crawford has not seen countless fine houses and chapels, can be excused her expectation that a great house would have a grand chapel. …

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